Ginger Nuts of Horror
Lex is the author of ‘The Other Side of the Mirror’ and the ‘Harkins’ book series, currently available on the Kindle (and hopefully in print at some point soon.) He is a regular contributor to the Horrifically Horrifying Horror Blog, and has been interviewed on various radio stations and websites talking about whatever random horror-related crap he could get away with waffling on about.
Could you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
I live in Sheffield, which for any non-Englanders is basically like the Winterfell on Game of Thrones. I’ve been writing stories, short and long, for years now but only recently got into the “let’s get published” game.
What do you like to do when you're not writing?
Reading! It genuinely stresses me out when there’s less than five books in my “to read” pile, so I then have to take a trip out to a book shop and buy more. I also enjoy videogames, movies, music, and wrestling with mutant alligators. The usual stuff.
What’s your favourite food?
Chocolate. Which is a ridiculously girly answer, but at least it’s honest.
Who would be on the soundtrack to your life story?
Johnny Cash sings a lot of brilliant songs about getting knocked down and finding a way to get up again. I’ve had a few knockbacks in my adult life, professional and personal, and I’m sure one of his would be ideal. Not particularly happy maybe, but still, I don’t think Scissor Sisters or Mika would have the same credibility on a life soundtrack.
Do you prefer the term Horror, Weird Fiction or Dark Fiction?
I like to call a spade a spade, so for me then Horror is Horror. True, Dark Fiction sounds a bit classier. But that’s only because Horror has been polluted by crappy American films that follow the same old tired format, and are designed solely to fill cinemas with teenage girls who scream at every jumpy moment. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the term Horror. Those who still write the good stuff should reclaim it, make it mean what it used to do.
Who are some of your favourite authors?
Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller as the modern choices, but Oscar Wilde and Conan Doyle as the classic ones.
What is your all-time favourite horror novel, and film?
All-time favourite Horror film is the Crow, if you can class it as a horror. I think most people do, although it works on much more levels than that. I also have a fondness for the ghost movie Fragile, which is massively underrated but very chilling.
As for books, I never tend to read any book more than once so it’s hard to pick a favourite because I’ve read so many. One that sticks with me as being a particularly good horror book in recent years is Nocturnes by John Connolly. Strictly speaking it’s not a novel, but I can’t think of anything else that isn’t just one I’ve read within the past year that immediately springs to mind. I find a lot of horror novels are “pick up and put downs”, with no real longevity in the memory. Nocturnes as a collection of stories broke that mold by suggesting various ideas and scenarios that linger and retain their power to disturb you long after the last page has been turned.
If you could erase one horror cliché what would be your choice?
The whole god-damn scenario that we see in every modern American ghost movie, and it goes like this:
“Family falls on hard times yet somehow afford a big house in the arse-end of nowhere. Kid starts seeing/doing/hearing stuff but no-one takes much notice. Then stuff gets stronger and parents believe it. Experts come in, a couple of them die but not the family themselves. Family moves or kid gets fixed or something, but ending is a bit ambiguous so they can make a sequel.”
It’s shit. All of it, just….shit. I could dissect every ridiculously overused cliché in there, but I won’t for the sake of not turning this into one big rant.
Which fictional character would be you perfect neighbour, and who would be your nightmare neighbour?
Perfect neighbour would be Clint Eastwood as Walt in the movie Gran Turino. Looks after his neighbourhood, keeps his lawn tidy, but keeps himself to himself and doesn’t expect much more than a friendly smile and hello.
Nightmare neighbour would be Joey from Friends. Or any of them, actually. That idea of just walking into your neighbour’s house and helping yourself to stuff from the fridge. Of just coming round and taking a seat when you haven’t been invited. It makes my blood boil. Don’t get me wrong, I love having friends round. Having a house full of people I love, playing games, watching movies, laughing and generally enjoying each other’s company. Love it. But I need to know it’s happening in advance. Set a date, find a time that suits everyone. Don’t just turn up whenever without an invite. Maybe I want a night to myself? Maybe I wanted that thing you just took from the fridge? Get the fuck out of my house until I give you permission to come back! Argh!!
What do you think of the current state of the genre?
It’s a big genre and any comment on this would risk being a generalisation. I’ve read some shit lately, but I’ve read some fantastic ones too. Some new authors are falling into traps and clichés and writing whatever they think will sell, others are making their own slant on things and breaking boundaries and writing some fantastic stuff. As long as we keep getting more of the latter, more new blood who writes what they want to write, makes their own world and doesn’t just copy an existing one that sold well, then I think the genre will take care of itself.
What was the last great book you read, and what was the last book that disappointed you?
Great book; X the Unknown, by Shaun Hutson. In the past few years, Hammer Horror have been novelising a lot of their old movies. Some as straight from screen-to-paper adaptations, others modernised and improved. X the Unknown is definitely the latter.
As a film it was a dodgy low budget B movie, but as a modern novel, with a talented author behind it, it turns into a genuinely creepy and thought-provoking novel about primeval terror. I was worried it might be a terrible book and that the hammyness of the film might creep in, but amazingly it didn’t. And I now think a modern film adaptation of this version of the book is richly derserved.
Disappointment: The Ghosts of Sleath, by James Herbert. I love Herbert, really do. Some of my first ever horror novel reads had his name on them. But this is just…. Dull. The main character is boring, the little ‘side events’ are more interesting than the main plot, and anyone with half a brain has figured out the end about halfway through the book, and when you get there it’s so unsatisfying that you close the book and immediately feel cheated. It doesn’t change my opinion of Herbert, I still love his books. But if this was a school assignment of his, you’d be writing “I know you can do better, James” on the front of it.
How would you describe your writing style?
Not all the way I speak, but still very unique to me. This, right now, is me writing the way I speak, more or less. Anyone that knows me personally would know this was me and could hear my voice as they read it. With my books, I often have people tell me they kept forgetting it was me who’d written it. However once they’ve read one of my books, they can see my style in all of them, even if it’s different genres.
Trying to describe that style is difficult, but I suppose it’s a mix of whatever genre I am writing in, and my own slant on it to keep it fresh. For instance I’ve written books set in the Victorian era that feel very Victorian, but told in a contemporary way that you may not have come across before. As far as my writing is concerned, I like to feel as though I’m stepping into a room and I’m dressed appropriately for it, but will still have my own identity clearly stamped on it. So let’s say I’m at a cocktail party, suited and booted as expected, but my bowtie is actually in the shape of a bat. Hopefully that makes some kind of sense.
Are there any reviews of your work, positive or negative that have stayed with you?
The first professional editing review of my first Harkins book came back to me with a note that said the characters weren’t strong enough, and had no real relationship with one another. That stung. I couldn’t see it at first. So left it, didn’t touch the book for months, retreated to my cave as we do. But then I read it again, after a gap of some months, and I saw it. I completely saw what they meant. So I re-wrote it, and now the reviews I get generally point out that same feature as being the strongest in the book. That stayed with me as an example of how you should always distance yourself a little from your immediate reaction to criticism. Of course you’re pissed off at first; you’re human. But don’t let that be your final reaction. Deal with that, get it out of your system, but then look again to see if it’s valid. Because chances are, some of it is.
What aspects of writing to do you find the most difficult?
Describing something that I find boring. I can give you a cracking description of a creepy Gothic mansion, or a deserted Victorian street, or a monster of some sort. But when the narrative forces me to describe a perfectly normal scene with nothing that great going on (at least to start with) I find it difficult to not just skip over to get to the next good bit. Those are usually the bits that take the most re-drafts, incidentally.
Is there one subject you would never write about as an author? What is it?
Child abuse. You see these books, always on the best seller stand for some reason, with a picture of a sad little girl holding a doll, with a title like “mommy didn’t stop him” or something equally hideous. I can’t stand it. Some of them are fiction, some aren’t, but either way it’s not a world I want to enter. Because whether I was writing fiction or one based in fact, I’d have to take my mind to a place that disgusts and terrifies me. Having a ghost rip out someone’s spleen is fine, I can describe that to you in such detail you can hear the blood dripping onto the floor. But child abuse is real, and it’s the greatest horror mankind has ever created. And frankly, call me a coward as an author, but I don’t want to go anywhere near it.
If you could kill off any character from any other book who would you chose and how would they die?
Ron Weasley. Ten pages after he first opens his mouth. I have no use for the “comedy bumbling sidekick”, whose sole purpose is to be funny. Particularly when nothing he says or does it actually funny. It’s middle-England Sunday teatime on BBC2 funny. Which is also known as “not funny”. Ron has one purpose and he fails it, yet somehow kops off with Emma Watson? Nah, sod that. He can die by crashing that flying car, or running really fast into the wrong wall at the train station and caving his skull in.
What do you think makes a good story?
Characters that people actually give a damn about. You’d be surprised how often authors neglect to make the reader care about the people whom the stuff is happening to. Or maybe you wouldn’t, and you’ve gotten as pissed off with it as me in the past.
How important are names to you in your books? Do you choose the names based on liking the way it sounds or the meaning?
Sometimes, sometimes not. There are occasions where a character’s name could not possibly be anything else, and others where I’m halfway through the book before I decide on a name for them. Ultimately, I would risk criticism and say it doesn’t ‘really’ matter what you call your characters. If I went back in time and changed Jack Reacher’s name to John Striker, would it affect the popularity of the books? Probably not. Although I've read that studies have shown that Jack is the name most Americans associate, unknowingly, with the ‘all American hero’. Clever but not ‘too’ clever, tough but not too much of a jock, etc etc, which is why so many franchises give that name to their hero. Not sure if I believe this fully, but it’s worth thinking about.
How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?
I am now very willing, and eager, to accept criticism from people as the book is being written, and adapt what I am writing based on it. I used to be very solitary, thinking no-one knew better than me how best to write my own book. To some degree that’s probably true, but getting insight into it can help make it better, stronger, before you even finish the first draft. Tell that to me five years ago and I’d have laughed, but I’ve seen evidence of this being true, at least for my own work, time and again.
What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
People to talk to about it. As much as writing can be a solitary thing, you need to have a network to share your stuff with. There has to be someone to tell you that what you just wrote is shit. Otherwise more of it will be. Also a large mug to reduce the number of trips to the kettle that are required, a good music selection in the background, and a healthy supply of biscuits.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
“Don’t ever assume that your work isn’t as good as anybody else’s.”
It’s simple, but it works for motivation.
How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for your genre?
Sites like this, quite honestly. I’ve done the radio and magazine interviews and all that, and it never seems to get the same reaction as doing interviews and features on websites dedicated to the genre.
Who is your favourite character from your book and why?
Samuel Malfrey, from my Harkins series. He’s basically an immortal Victorian hedonist who’s an expert in the occult. He starts the series as a care-free batchelor, caring about nothing beyond his own self-interest. But by the end he has transformed considerably, by experience and against his will, into something else entirely. He’s a character who I feel would be interesting to have a good dinner conversation with, because he’s been everywhere and done everything.
How about the least favourite character? What makes them less appealing to you?
There is a character in the second of the Harkins books who is a member of a religious extremist cult. I tried to write him in a way that you understood where he was coming from, even if you didn’t agree with his actions in any way. The problem I have with characters like that, in my own work or anyone else’s, is that I could never see from their viewpoint. Try as I might, I am a creature of logic and reason, fact and rationale. Dedicating your life, and even your death and the deaths of others, to something you can never prove the existence of, makes no sense whatsoever, so I just can’t empathise with them.
Fame, fortune, or respect?
Fame is a possible consequence of success. I don’t care if random people recognise me or not, so that’s worthless t me. Fortune would be nice because that’s the world we live in. Having a shitload of money would just make things easier, for both myself and my loved ones whose lives I would also endeavour to improve. But neither is as valuable as being respected for your work. A good example of that in recent media is that guy who made the Flappy Bird game. He made hundreds of thousands of pounds every week, yet took the game down from sale because people said it was shit. He didn’t want to be famous and rich for making something that people thought was hideous. That takes some serious willpower, and automatically deserves our respect, I think.
What piece of your own work are you most proud of?
I wrote a book called Ben and Jerry, which isn’t actually available yet, but is being edited. It’s about the relationship between God and the Devil, told as a father and son trying to reconcile after years of conflict. Very little happens in terms of action or anything, it’s mostly a series of long conversations. And yet a few people have read it now and told me it came close to bringing them to tears, and described it as ‘powerful’. It was a daring book for me, countless miles from the type of thing I usually write, and I am proud that I seem to have pulled it off.
And are there any that you would like to forget about?
I’ve not been in the game long enough to really have any of those yet!
For those who haven’t read any of your books, what book of yours do you think best represents your work and why?
The Harkins series, because it spans a long time, there will be about 7 books in total and it covers a lot of types of horror, and a multitude of characters and eras. So it’s like a horror buffet that I’ve provided.
Can you tell us about your last book, and can you tell us about what you are working on next?
My last book was Ben and Jerry, detailed in a previous question, and I am now working on the second Harkins book.
What's the one question you wish you would get asked but never do? And what would be the answer?
Would you like to appear on QI? And my answer would be yes. That’s probably not the sort of thing you meant for this question, but I’m sticking with that answer.
Find out more about Lex by following the links below
London, 1887. Disgraced private detective Chester Harkins, has narrowly escaped a murder charge, forcing him to change his life radically. After spending years trying to block his psychic ability taking opium, he now embraces it. Harkins partners with Mortimer Grimm, the ghost of an occult detective whose last case ended his life. In return for Harkins’ promise that he will help Grimm solve his final case, Grimm agrees to show Harkins the hidden side to London and the world.
Harkins and Grimm, operating from the Whitechapel district of London’s east end, take on cases with a distinctly supernatural twist: ghosts, werewolves, Hellish creatures and curses from beyond the grave. Whilst Harkins relishes every new experience, Grimm does his utmost to make sure Harkins’ reckless nature doesn’t get him killed in the process. Passion overtakes reason in the form of Maria Rosen, a Romany medium who is in equal parts the most fascinating and most dangerous person Harkins has ever met. Despite Grimm’s warnings to the contrary, Harkins enters into a relationship with Maria which will alter the course of his life even further.
When Grimm’s murderer inevitably resurfaces, Harkins stands side by side with his partner in a final showdown with a demonic creature on the fog-shrouded streets of Whitechapel. The events of that night have lasting effects that take Harkins’ life in a direction he could never have expected.